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From Galway to the Congo — into the Heart of Darkness - Part 2

Wednesday, 22nd December, 2010 11:40am

Jadotville — the 'Irish Army's forgotten battle'

For the next four days, 'A' Company would be embroiled in a battle that would become more and more desperate, "but throughout which they would fight with the utmost bravery."

There has been some criticism — in a study carried out for a Command and Staff course at the Irish Defence Force Military College — of Comdt Quinlan's decision to hold fire at an early stage, "in the hope of defusing the situation … in hindsight, this may have been a valuable target opportunity lost." But Declan Power's book offers this opinion: "While certainly a valid comment regarding a unit commander's role in a combat situation — to close with the enemy and destroy him by every means possible — it does not take into account the strategic and political waters Quinlan had to navigate. He was effectively trying to sail his unit through waters with only a half-drawn map courtesy of U.N. strategic planning and communications, or rather the lack thereof."

The author of Siege at Jadotville went on to allege that although he didn't know it then, Comdt. Patrick Quinlan would have to wage this fierce battle "much like a prizefighter climbing into the ring blindfolded and with one arm tied behind his back … but his foresight was to save his men's lives. As well as ordering them to dig trenches after they arrived, he ordered that all available receptacles be filled with fresh water, even though he was expecting reinforcements by the end of the day. These actions were to mean the difference between life and death."

Lt Carey "got word that a relief column was on the way from our battalion at Elisabethville and would be at the Lufira bridge soon. Morale soared, as I informed the platoon in the trenches adjacent to me. We had no food and only a little water, but the adrenaline kept all those thoughts out of our mind, even in the blistering heat. We discussed how we would greet our relief column and how well we had acquitted ourselves after the baptism of fire. As the day passed we could clearly hear the thump of mortars at Lufira and our hearts soared. Our relief was at hand. The firing lasted an hour and then silence. We waited, and waited."

The relief column did not make it across the Lufira bridge.

The battle could not last for ever: Quinlan agreed ceasefire terms with Godefroid Munongo, Katanga's minister for the interior and a man implicated in the death of Lumumba. It was Sunday, September 17th 1961.

The U.N. Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, died that same day in a Congo plane crash; he had come from New York on a mission to bring peace between Katangan and U.N. troops.

'A' Company, within hours of the ceasefire, found the agreement broken and surrender the only option. They were taken prisoner, hostages to be bargained with in the Katangan / Belgian power struggle with the United Nations. They were freed after five weeks of captivity, in late October, and resumed their tour of duty.

ROSE DOYLE is the author of another book on the Irish in the Congo, Heroes of Jadotville, and niece of Patrick Quinlan. She wrote: "They left Ireland for the heat of Africa in June 1961, wearing uniforms of bulls' wool, with leggings and brown-studded boots which, as one soldier put it, could be heard coming a mile off! The population of the Irish State was less than three million, with a minority Fianna Fáil government under the leadership of Seán Lemass, and RTÉ television had only recently begun broadcasting. The young soldiers who volunteered for peacekeeping in Africa were mainly in their teens and 20s, filled equally with an urge to find adventure and escape economic misery. They were among the first soldiers of the independent State, then less than 50 years old, to serve abroad. They should have been heroes. The problem was that they did not die. Dead, they would have been heralded and sung about, become the stuff of legend and of pub ballads about Ireland's great and glorious martyrs. Instead, they fought, men and boys together, for five cruel, brutally hot and bloody days. They fought against bombs from the air and 4,000 heavily armed, mercenary-led Katangan gendarmerie on the ground. They killed up to 300 men. But not one of the 156 members of 'A' Company of the 35th Battalion of Óglaigh na hEireann who took part in the Battle of Jadotville in that area of the Congo in September 1961 died. Instead, they negotiated a ceasefire, were betrayed, left with no option other than to surrender, and they ended up as hostages before eventually being freed to fight another day. And so they were systematically reviled, ostracised and written out of the history books.

"Their treatment highlights dangerous, unpardonable shortcomings in the U.N. and its chain of command and shows how the politics of greed dictated events. And their story, as they tell it, starkly illustrates how life, death and honour are of value only in their usefulness. It was never going to go away untold. The question was always: when? When would the Irish U.N. peacekeeping soldiers forced to fight a murderously brutal battle in Jadotville, in the mineral rich province of Katanga, tell their story, give their facts and, finally, reveal the truth of an action long and shamefully denied?

"A 42-year-old Commandant in 1961, Pat Quinlan was a retired colonel when he died in 1997, leaving behind a journal of events in Katanga, as well as many of his impassioned letters home, letters given to him by others, tactical notes intended for the better future training of Irish soldiers, and a host of photographs. He was my mother's beloved, only brother and he died with his anger about 'A' Company's betrayal by the Army, successive Governments, the United Nations and Belgium a furiously living part of him still. My cousin Leo subsequently gathered together and sorted through his dead father's letters, journals, reports and memorabilia. He transcribed the quick, impatient handwriting, making clear its lacerating, hour-by-hour account of events in Katanga 45 years ago. As the only family member to earn a living by writing, I was given the task of getting a book together. Heroes Of Jadotville really is The Soldiers' Story: the words, letters, journals, memories, humour and humanity of all the men who fought there. A tribute and truth-telling long overdue. Jadotville memories are long. This and much more I discovered gathering together those words, letters and memories. Not merely long but instructive and filled with detail, with the revelations of minutiae unexpressed through the years. A moral tale, told by men who understood right from wrong. And who for far too long were not being listened to. The story of the 156 peacekeeping soldiers of 'A' Company and how they faced death, fought in the mining town of Jadotville, Katanga and lived to fight another day has raised unanswered questions about a subject that has been taboo for years.

"Liam Donnelly, a Captain at Jadotville, made a comprehensive submission to the then chief of Staff Lieut Gen Gerry McMahon in 1996. His aim was 'to rectify an outstanding injustice.' His submission was ignored. John Gorman, a 17-year-old Private at Jadotville, campaigned tirelessly in Athlone for years. Dáil questions were asked and debated, and Liam Donnelly had better luck when he re-submitted in 2004 to Chief of Staff Lieut Gen Sreenan. In November 2005, a plaque honouring the soldiers of 'A' Company, and acknowledgement that their surrender was an honourable one, made when there was no other choice, was unveiled at Custume Barracks, Athlone. For many, including my late uncle, this gesture came far, far too late."

Ms. Doyle went on to use these quotes from the disillusioned Comdt. Quinlan: "I was not prepared to let my brave men die for nothing ... the U.N. made a mess of things. Organised by the Belgian Government, we were lured to Jadotville and ended up as hostages … it is a pity that we, who never believed in the use of force, must suffer for the blunders of little dictators and stupid military leaders ... we were not there to shoot Africans, we came to help them."

AS FAR BACK as 1996, Retired Comdt. W. G. (Liam) Donnelly formally wrote to the then Chief of Staff, Lieut. General G. McMahon, and posted the letter to Army Headquarters, Parkgate Street, Dublin. Comdt. Donnelly stated he was taking the liberty of making a submission "focusing, in particular, on what became known as The Jadotville Affair," and he wished his submission to be relevant to ‘A' Company of the 35th Infantry Battalion, who had served in the Congo in 1961. Eight years later, in March 2004, Comdt. Donnelly wrote to Lieut. General McMahon's successor, Lieut. General J. Sreenan, congratulating him on his appointment to the top post in the Irish Army and re-submitting the 60-page document which he had sent to the outgoing Chief of Staff in December 1996. "I did not receive any written response to that submission and at a meeting with him (Lieut. General McMahon) I was verbally side-stepped," stated Comdt. Donnelly in his letter to Lieut. General Sreenan.

Liam Donnelly is a particularly well-known, well-liked and hugely respected figure in Irish Army history. In his youth, he excelled in sport; he was a very talented Gaelic footballer and hurler, playing for All-Ireland winning Dublin Minor teams, in both codes, and for Dublin seniors in the 1948 All-Ireland Hurling final against a great Waterford team.

In his Army career, Liam Donnelly spent ten happy years in Tuam (1958-68), living at Ballygaddy Road and serving as Training Officer at the local unit's base in Old Road — except, of course, for the time he spent abroad, in the Congo in 1961 and Cyprus in 1967. He married a Co. Galway woman, Eileen Mee from Glenamaddy.

All who joined the F.C.A. in those years remember Captain Donnelly as a strikingly impressive figure, a very handsome, articulate man, with an air of gravitas about him, but it was quiet authority; he was the least showy and ostentatious of men. Truly, it could be said of him that he was, in the words of the later movie title, an Officer and a Gentleman.

He was tireless in his efforts to have the true story of Jadotville told to the Irish people, and to have the courage, loyalty and sense of duty of his comrades recognised and honoured.

In his lengthy submission to the highest Irish Army authorities, the retired Commandant stated in his introduction: "Having participated as a member of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Congo in 1961 as Support Platoon Commander, 'A' Company, 35th Irish Battalion, I had and still have grave doubts and misgivings as to the manner in which the political and military affairs of the U.N. were conducted in the Congo in the period August to November 1961 relative to Katanga affairs.

'We were not an army of occupation or an army in support of its own government in the maintenance of law and order, but a U.N. peacekeeping force with a delicate mission and a weak mandate for its ability to use force.'

"The commander of a support platoon would normally be expected not to be overly concemed with, or about, the procedures and orders emanating from a higher authority, only to obey them when lawful, but in the circumstances in which 'A' Company found itself at Jadotville and the manner in which the Jadotville affair was glossed over, not mentioned and best forgotten about by higher authority, has led me to gather information over recent years to assist in: establishing facts, clearing my doubts regarding operational procedures; and clearing the good name and professional integrity and bravery of all the 'A' Company personnel in relation to Jadotville."

In his conclusions and recommendations, Captain Donnelly made a fervent plea for how history should judge his esteemed, much loved leader at Jadotville: "Comdt. Quinlan and the Company he commanded deserve positive acknowledgement for carrying out their U.N. Mandate."

It duly came, 45 years after Jadotville, in November 2006 when the State, with the then Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Jim Sreenan presiding, officially honoured the 70 surviving veterans of the battle in what was an emotional, very moving and great public event at Custume Barracks, Athlone — the place they had proudly marched out of in 1961 on their way to the Congo.

The then Minister for Defence, Willie O'Dea T.D., presented a vellum scroll, listing the men who took part in the Battle of Jadotville, to the veterans and to the families of the deceased.

The Minister said: "The State is proud of the men of 'A' Company. They fought with great fortitude, and what those brave young men did in Jadotville was truly remarkable. By their deeds they left an enduring legacy to the Irish Defence Forces."

The U.N. military commander in Katanga, Brig. Kas Raja, was memorably quoted as saying: "The Irish troops in Jadotville were magnificent and the Irish commander Comdt Quinlan would, in the Indian army, be awarded the highest military award for gallantry. I believe he could be held as an example to all soldiers."

Great soldiers, great Irishmen, like Patrick Quinlan, Liam Donnelly and Noel Carey always knew in their hearts that there could never be substitutes for truth and justice.

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